Valentia Burlak is currently a junior at Brookline High School and has been on the Sagamore's staff since 2020. Valentia loves to play on the piano, and...
Reforming the sex education curriculum
May 14, 2021
As an intrinsic part of humanity, sex and sexuality have always been an important factor in student education. Due to the efforts of the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention Warriors (SHARP Warriors), the sex education curriculum has seen significant and impactful changes over the past year.
Along with seniors Meg Hitchcock-Smith and Dani Small, senior Alex Noble began SHARP Warriors over the summer in an effort to bring the administration’s attention to rape culture and much needed sex education curriculum changes.
In a presentation to administrators, the SHARP Warriors outlined the issue of rape culture at the high school. The presentation swayed the administration, and led them to re-examine the structures around rape culture, particularly the sex education curriculum. Recently, the SHARP Warriors helped organize Day of Change, a day to bring awareness to sexual and gender-based violence.
According to the Planned Parenthood Sex Education Curriculum, sex education can be defined as a teaching of topics regarding sex and sexuality objectively to gain neccessary skills needed to navigate relationships and learn to take care of one’s own sexual health.
Noble said that there was a lot missing from the Planned Parenthood Get Real curriculum that the Brookline Public Schools were using.
“The consensus among every student that I’ve talked to has been that the sex education currciulm is not comprehensive. It’s taught with emphasis on abstinence,” Noble said. “Students feel like there isn’t enough information about sexual abuse or real world situations that they can relate to. It feels abstracted to them.”
Hitchcock-Smith said that the SHARP Warriors’s current focus is to make the curriculum more inclusive towards everyone, as well as define consent at a young age.
“Our main focus right now would be inclusivity in the sex education curriculum specifically for LGBTQ+ identifying people,” Hitchcock-Smith said. “We also want to focus on consent with sex, but also consent in real life situations. Like, how do you say no and articulate yourself? That’s really important to us.”
Junior Erica Weinreich is also working with the SHARP Warriors to make the sex education curriculum more useful for students.
“First, we want the classroom environment to be an honest and open discussion that avoids generating shame or stigma around sexuality. We don’t want these subjects to be approached vaguely or with a method that would allow for concern and confusion in students. There is no right or wrong answer in sexuality,” Weinreich said.
According to Hitchcock-Smith, it is important to start teaching consent from a very young age.
“It’s important to have ‘no, I don’t want to’ be a thing in a classroom. We should be teaching kids about being able to say no and having those responses be okay. Giving kids those little bits of autonomy builds larger stepping stones of being able to say no,” Hitchcock-Smith said.
Furthermore, Hitchcock-Smith said teaching boundaries at a young age is important to educating kids in hopes of preventing a trauma from happening in a child’s life.
“Things like sexual assault and harrasment could be prevented and it would make someone’s life so much better. Generally, I think the goal is making sure that the next generation of kids who go through Brookline are even more educated and inclusive than we are,” Hitchcock-Smith said.
According to Weinreich, in middle school, the conversations about sex education were divided up by sex, with females and males split up to talk about seperate topics in separate areas. Weinreich expressed her motivation to change that, with undivided conversations taking place instead.
“It should be all-inclusive so that everyone is informed. There should also be unity among middle schools, keeping the curriculum the same (for everyone) since we’re all going to be at the same high school,” Weinreich said. “We want to make sure that all students are aware of the definition of sexual harassment and sexual assault, so that they are able to identify scenarios of abuse in real world contexts.”
Junior Sasha Kalvert, who has been working on the Day of Change project with SHARP Warriors, said that when her middle school covered sex education, there was almost no mention of sex other than for cisgender and straight people. On top of that, Kalvert added that there was a tendency in her sex ed lessons to making sex seem scary and immoral.
Kalvert said that since sex and rape culture are intrinsically linked, part of the proposed curriculum changes are based around teaching them hand in hand. Not talking about the dark underside of sex and sexual violence, Kalvert said, ultimately leads to more harm being done. Even though it may not seem appropriate to educate younger students about sex, it’s essential in the fight against sexual violence and gender-based violence.
“The biggest issue that we face is that things like consent don’t have a common definition. We want to address our huge sexual violence problem to try to facilitate change,” Kalvert said.
Weinreich said that one of the biggest problems in the curriculum was the lack of specific examples relating to real world situations. Weinreich said that it’s really important for students to be able to identify sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape in actual contexts.
As a part of this aspect of the curriculum, Hitchcock-Smith said that there needed to be more of an explanation regarding what a healthy relationship does and does not look like.
“A lot of times, when we learn about unhealthy relationships, they’re not really portrayed with teenagers. I associate them more with adulthood, but I think a lot of (unhealthy relationships) root in adolescence,” Hitchcock-Smith said.
Noble said that implementing these changes in the sex education curriculum was important to foster a safe and valued community.
“Sexuality, as an intrinsic part of our humanity, is greatly undervalued and ignored largely. I think that having the subject be recognized and addressed in a healthy way lays the basis for a better, more respectful, caring and honest community,” Noble said.
According to Interim K-12 Coordinator for Wellness Education Carlyn Zaniboni Uyenoyama, the administration’s priority has been and will continue to be student safety in an emotional, social and physical sense.
“Part of student safety is making sure that kids have meaningful experiences that are real and inclusive to them,” Uyenoyama said.
Noble said that she strives for the generations of kids after her to have a better experience with sexuality.
“If I can make a change and have even just one or two kids have a better experience and relationship with themselves and their peers, I would do anything to make that happen. I think it’s important to everybody, even if people may not realize it,” Noble said.
Brookline Commission for Women Chair Rebecca Stone said that seeing multiple perspectives in a school environment when learning about sex education is crucial to understanding one another as whole people.
“We are seeing the intersections of students’ experiences in school, as a child, with adults, and all of our experiences around how we learned to be with each other in respectful and positive ways is absolutely essential to the health of our communities,” Stone said. “That’s why it’s important.”
The curriculum changes
Uyenoyama met with the SHARP Warriors at the beginning of the year to discuss changes in the sex education curriculum already being made.
“I was actually really happy to meet with the SHARP Warriors because I was excited to be able to say that we’ve already started to implement this new version of the curriculum,” Uyenoyama said.
According to Uyenoyama, working on changing the curriculum means that a partnership between parents and teachers needs to be established. Training teachers to teach sex education and making sure all families feel safe while their students are being taught are all crucial aspects of successful and operative learning.
“We’re working on the training of the teachers. We also have to partner with the parents and the community because it’s important to make sure that all families feel safe,” Uyenoyama said. “We did a seminar and a webinar back in February. We were doing this to answer questions, to share the curriculum, to share the updates, because we know that it’s important to have partnership with the parents as well as with the students.”
Stone said that the new curriculum was explained in a district-wide meeting with parents.
“What Brookline is currently using is more youth positive. It’s less about prevention of the bad and more about emphasis on the good. It’s very LGBTQ+ inclusive and responsive,” Stone said. “It has a specific weaving in of the issue of consent. Having it be youth positive and reflective of the real experiences of youth and address issues of consent are all just hugely important.”
According to Stone, the Commission for Women hopes to work with students on reflecting the student experience into suitable and open conversation.
“Moving forward, what the Commission for Women hopes to do is to work with the students on bringing all of their work into a conversation with the school committee. Both about where in the policy manual it outlines that this is a good direction for sex education to take and the conversation about where it fits in the whole arch of health-education,” Stone said.
Uyenoyama said that separation of the sexes will no longer be the case in the new, updated curriculum.
Instead, students will be able to choose which conversation they would like to be a part of and which group they would like to go to. Every student will be presented with a choice between certain topics being covered on a given day. Anyone will be able to go to any particular session, and learn about what they want to learn about.
Uyenoyama met with the seventh and eighth grade health teachers to officially change the transgender definition in the curriculum. On top of that, Uyenoyama aims to work on meeting with the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) to talk about being a creative listener—listening attentively, and acting upon what is heard—as an educator, and to reinforce that everyone feels welcome to be who they are.
Uyenoyama said that staff training, a very crucial part of the curriculum’s delivery to students, can be difficult with the amount of health teachers in Brookline.
“With comprehensive sex education, a good curriculum, good classroom climate, and really effective teacher training, you usually have what people need. What’s difficult about Brookline, but a challenge I’m taking on, is that we have eight different schools with lots of teachers to train,” Uyenoyama said.
“I need to make sure that everyone understands that these teachers are trying and we have to be mindful of how much training they’ve had and how much training they haven’t had.”
Teaching sex education virtually adds an additional challenge for teachers, Uyenoyama said. To address this, she conducted a training session for teachers to learn how to teach sex education effectively, both online and in person.
“We needed to know how to have an environment that feels safe socially, emotionally, physically and academically with the kids that are at home. Teaching sex ed remotely is different than teaching it in person. You’re not only in your virtual classroom, but so is the students’ family,” Uyenoyama said.
To inform the curriculum that is being taught, a district-wide survey has been sent out to students, in partnership with the Brookline Public Health and Counseling department. Uyenoyama said that this survey talks about behaviors related to sexual activity and decision-making.
“We’ll be able to use the data to inform what modifications we might need to make on the educational side. We can keep updating the curriculum, but if people are still mistreating each other, we need to figure out how we can make a safer environment and create the culture we want,” Uyenoyama said.
Creating the right culture within a classroom establishes that being anywhere along the sexuality spectrum is okay, Noble said. Regardless of however you enter a classroom and exist as a human being, establishing a place of respect, honesty and responsibility with one-another creates a stable environment to lay out the basis of a healthy future in kids’ relationships with their sexuality.
Noble said that the curriculum is in great hands with Uyenoyama’s willingness to work with the SHARP Warriors while implementing changes. According to Noble, Dean of Old Lincoln School Jenee Uttaro manages most of the administrative business with SHARP Warriors, and she has done most of the go-between.
Currently, the SHARP Warriors are taking action to write a comprehensive philosophy statement that will include a basic overview of how information should be taught and presented in a way that is both understandable and accurate for staff and students.
With more changes to be made to the curriculum, the administration and the SHARP Warriors will continue to work together to overcome the roadblocks and move towards something greater as a community.
“With the larger Brookline community, we’re working on getting this philosophy that encompasses what we want to see from the sex education curriculum. It’s a very bureaucratic process that gets bounced between a lot of people,” Hitchcock-Smith said.
Even though the sex education curriculum changes are being implemented, Noble said that the process to making real change can be slow. There are many changes to implement, so the main focus right now is for the SHARP Warriors to work on their philosophy statement while administration continues to look through the curriculum and determine the skills and values students should acquire.
According to Noble, starting from the ground up is an important step to implementing a valid philosophy statement. The SHARP Warriors are not trying to edit specific lesson plans to get everything they want into the curriculum. For example, Noble continues to push for a less abstinence-based curriculum, but understands that abstinence cannot be eliminated for good. Instead, Noble will focus on the next steps to implementing a philosophy statement that will continue to inspire change.
Stone said that moving in the direction of having health and wellness be a part of understanding our relationships with each other is a really great start to creating an authentic future for everyone.
“There’s no question in my mind that we will be making enormous progress towards having a better, more supportive and positive culture for everyone both in high school and beyond,” Stone said.